It’s still possible that the employment relationship can be an equal one, but power moves and flows across those relationships in strange and interesting ways. How has technology changed that balance and what are the consequences for how power is used in organisations?
Last week a story ran in the UK media about a number of similarly worded letters sent out by medical schools to their students. Ahead of a controversial proposed change in working practices for junior doctors, a large number of medical students had taken to social media to express their opposition. Society is now used to this. Venting on social media may have gone from zero to mainstream in a short amount of time, but nobody is any longer shocked by the fact that it happens. So, in the way I’m intending to frame these kinds of questions in future: if we are clear how we would react to that type of behaviour outside of work, how do we react to it when we are sat at our desks with all the power of management at our disposal?
The answer in the case of the medical schools was, as I said earlier, to issue letters to students reminding them of the importance of not bringing their institutions into disrepute, to consider their tone on social media and even to think about the potential implications (limiting one presumes) for their future careers in Medicine. This approach achieved two things: 1) It raised the profile of the issues that the medical students were unhappy with in a much more effective way than they could themselves, and 2) it made the medical schools look silly. To be fair to the schools, they seemed to accept this had been a mistake when asked about it afterwards.
Medical schools don’t have a monopoly on sending out badly thought through warnings to staff or students about the dangers of speaking their minds. HR departments are particularly skilled in this and can be far too quick in attempting to use that power we referred to earlier that they have in the employment relationship. What is interesting today, in 2015, is how clunky that approach feels now. Gradually, the line between the personal and the professional in the new public life (social media) is blurring. Twitter bios with ‘tweeting in a personal capacity only’ are becoming fewer as is the practice of running two accounts (one for work, one for real life). Something else is bubbling up and threatening to burst through into the public domain: the integrated person whose view at 8pm in the evening is the same one they expressed at 2pm in the afternoon.
To think about this, it’s helpful to consider the issue from two different angles. The first is the classic challenge that saying something controversial on social media risks “bringing the organisation into disrepute”. Whilst that may have gone unchallenged for many years, let’s ask ourselves today which would tarnish the reputation of an employer more: having an employee who disagrees with it or having an HR department that sends out threatening letters to attempt to control what people who hold different views say about it. Of course, there will always be exceptions. In many professions employees are trusted with confidential personal or commercial information that they can be reasonably expected to keep confidential. But when it comes to differences of opinion would an intelligent employer today really attempt to close down dissent in public forums?
The second angle is the very question of dissent in organisations. We seem able to accept in our neighbourhoods, families, friendship circles and communities that people hold different and often conflicting views and opinions. Do we believe in the workplace that suddenly this doesn’t happen anymore? Or do we believe instead that the employer determines the legitimate view so making any other illegitimate? If your view is considered illegitimate does that then mean that you are not ‘allowed’ to express that view without being subject to some kind of punishment or sanction?
Social media has fundamentally changed the ability of employers to control what their employees say about them in public broadcast spaces (social media) or what anybody else says about them. Attempting to hang on to that power by exercising it in an arena where it will simply not work is the wrong approach. Instead, we need to ask ourselves interesting questions about the value we can derive from being able to hear these multiple, dissenting and conflicting voices. The more views we can hear, unedited and uncensored, the more likely we are to get to a conversation about how to change things for the better by improving work and working lives.